Why Some Change Is Hard: A Look at Diffusion of Change Across a Community

Missie Thurston Sep 01, 2022

I remember being young, maybe seven, and realizing that I needed to tell my 4-year-old brother I wanted help cleaning up our toys before I got angry that he wasn’t helping. I realized I needed to get better at asking for help – and I resolved to try.

As an adult, I have made conscious decisions to attempt any number of things: cook more meals that are “new” recipes to me; go to bed at a regular time; shift my intentions or behaviors within different relationships; and so much more. Some change is easy. Some is hard.

There’s a lot known about behavior change – what makes change easy and what makes change hard – and there should be. People have intended to change their own behavior and the behavior of others since people have been alive. And very smart people have been studying it for a very long time.

We have talked about Stages of Change before – an important framework for considering what the change process looks like for an individual. It helps us comprehend what stage a person might be in so that we can meet that person appropriately. The process to reach change is much longer, and each of the stages more nuanced, when the change being discussed is hard.

But what makes some changes easy and some hard? And how can we predict what changes will be easy and which ones will be hard?

These are good questions. And they are questions that can be connected to another common tool used to design behavior change interventions: Diffusion of Innovations.

What is Diffusion of Innovations?

You may have already heard of Diffusion of Innovations because it has been widely studied to understand what makes ideas, products, norms, and behaviors “stick.” It strives to answer key questions about how and why something becomes widely implemented or used across a population.

Now the standard “Diffusion of Innovations” model looks like this:

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You’ll note that the target population for the “innovation” is broken down into five distinct segments that are placed on an undefined time lapse at the bottom of the model. Essentially, we can understand that in any target population there will be those first to adopt the change (innovators are 2.5% of the population), who will be followed by Early Adopters (13.5%), followed by Early Majority (24%), then Late Majority (34%), and ultimately the Laggards (15%).

There are numerous guides about the importance of appealing to each of the five segments of the population, each segment with its own appeal strategy, to drive adoption.

There are also numerous studies that discuss the “tipping point” in Diffusion of Innovations. This differs by “innovation,” but it is the point in adoption when the “innovation” gains momentum, spreading more quickly. The trigger points for this are numerous, but one commonly discussed trigger is the increasing number of real-life role models who are now actively role-modeling the “innovation.” These role models are considered to be “Agents of Change” and a crucial part of the strategy.

The tipping point is directly impacted by the type of change, so it makes sense that answers to our key question about what makes some changes hard also informs thinking about when an “innovation” will reach a tipping point.

Why are some ideas, products, social norms, or behaviors harder than others?

People have been asking this question for a long time. Why do populations react to different innovations so differently? Is it related to the target population? Is it related to the “innovation” itself? The answer to both, of course, is yes.

There are many categories of “innovations” and even within more narrow categories of “innovation” people segment. For instance, in public health people break down different innovations into categories like short-term benefit interventions or preventative innovations. Here are a few characteristics that influence diffusion:

Compatibility:  Does this “innovation” align with the population’s values, realities, needs, or understandings?

Complexity: Is this “innovation” simple or complicated? Will it take many steps and changes or very few steps and changes? Easy to maintain or hard to maintain?

Time & Commitment: Related to complexity, will this “innovation” require the population to invest a lot or a little amount of time? What resources beyond time will the population have to invest to make the change?

Communicability: Does the population understand the “innovation” and can they clearly, easily, and simply explain it to others?

Observability: Can the population watch other people do this “innovation” before deciding to do it themselves?

Divisibility: Can the population try out the “innovation”? Can they do pieces of the “innovation,” slowly moving into it instead of having to do the entire thing at once?

Risk and uncertainty: Will the population be vulnerable to negative repercussions? Does the population doubt that the outcome of making this change will be positive?

Reversibility: How easily will the population be able to stop and revert to status quo? Will any harm have been done by trying the “innovation” even if they go back to status quo?

Tested or emerging: Is the “innovation” still emerging or is it set? If it is emerging (like Covid-19 info), people may be concerned about validity of data and guidance or continual changes might confuse people and lower adoption, slowing or halting diffusion.

Agency: How much does the population believe they have the ability to make the change?

The reality of adopting change

Many people have worked to influence my ideas, convince me to purchase a certain product, or  advocated for me to change my behavior. Sometimes those conversations ring true and sometimes they don’t.

And too many times to count, I have come to the conclusion that I need to change my behavior, ideas, or products. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail. The reasons are numerous: how important is it to someone, how deeply entrenched is the factor that is changing, does it go against social norms, is it difficult to do or maintain?

Some behavior change is relatively easy. When I decided to use an electric toothbrush, the shift was easy. But those aren’t the kinds of ideas and behaviors and social norms we aim to change at Population Media Center. We work on deeply personal issues.

We inspire conversations amongst husbands and wives. We impact how parents talk with their kids about sex and reproductive health. We know that we have to understand the context of both the “innovation” we’re looking to introduce and intimately understand the audience we are reaching.

Writing the Script for their Future

It’s only by being thoughtful and sensitive to the public health needs and the human needs that we can be effective. That is how we move people through the Stages of Change and diffuse an innovation across a population.